Migrant workers from Laos: Benefits tempered with high risks

Migration of people from Laos across the border to Thailand is a continuing phenomenon as people try to find jobs and income. The stories of migration from Savannakhet province in Laos, one of the key areas for labour migration from Laos to Thailand, shows the benefits as well as high risks faced by migrant workers.

Migrant workers play a key role in the economy of Lao PDR. In Savannakhet province, people decide to migrate to Thailand for work based on stories they hear about Thailand’s big cities, jobs and cash income from their friends and neighbours. Moreover, jobs are scarce in their own hometowns, and they migrate to earn money to support their families. Since 1986, Lao PDR has pursued a policy of economic reform with the adoption of the “New Economic Mechanism”. The Government of Lao PDR (GOL) has increasingly focused on private sector development, in particular the development of Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs).

For Laos, private sector development is seen as an engine of growth, employment and poverty reduction. By 2012, the number of SMEs and the volume of foreign direct investment (FDI) were increasing. However, SMEs in Laos face many obstacles including the lack of skilled labor (2.55%).

Savannakhet province: A key place for migration to Thailand

Migrant workers from Savannakhet go to Thailand to get cash income to support their family members’ education (33%)1 and for building houses. The numbers of migrant workers going to Thailand are rising every year. In 2004, UNICEF estimated that more than 100,000 Lao workers are employed in Thailand, many of them illegally as undocumented workers. International Labour Organization (ILO) figures stated that about 180,000 Lao workers have registered for employment in Thailand.

Thailand’s Ministry of Labour2 stated that the number of Lao workers in Thailand was about 110,854 in 2009.

Interview to female worker who return who return from Thailand and her family at Thoum village, Champhone district, Savannakhet province. (Photo by Somphone Soukhathammavong.)

Talking about their experiences working in Thailand: A woman migrant worker with her family at Thoum village, Champhone district, Savannakhet province. (Photo by Somphone Soukhathammavong.)

Savannakhet province, with a population of about 826,000, is rich in forest and mineral resources as well as abundant in fertile land and water resources. Savannakhet’s location is near the Mekong River makes it attractive for tourism and other commercial activities.

In Laos in general, many people believe migration is a remedy to reduce poverty in their local towns and villages. In Savannakhet especially, the people are considered to have a “social psychology of migration”.

In 2013, Savannakhet recognised the need to help migrant workers and officially established a department to oversee labour migration for work and prevent human trafficking. But the department faces many constraints including lack of information, knowledge of international methods to track migration, and the assistance of migrant workers.

“Migration is the one of the oldest actions against poverty and for maintaining their livelihoods. This pattern is well-estabished in the remote areas of Savannakhet province to find income to support other members of the family,” said Mr. Boun, a local teacher in the province.

“Teenagers in Savannakhet have two choices. Either they go to work in Thailand or they go to schools,” he added.

Suvannakhet is the largest producer of rice in Laos. The main occupation was local people is farming making up 57% or more than half of the total population in the province. Rice farming is not just an occupation or an economic cash crop, but also the subsistence staple and the only real insurance against food deficits. However, the people can cultivate only one crop a year so during the dry season from December to May, very little agricultural work is carried out. The dry season therefore has a high outflow of workers seeking income in Thailand.  In 2005, the number of migrant workers was 48,831.

Impacts of migration

Migrant workers have many impacts on their communities in terms of both gains and losses as workers in cross-border labor markets. The impact of the migration of workers also involves their integration into the receiving countries, while the impact of the returning workers concern their re-integration into their home communities. Studies show that of the 8% of the Lao labor force in Thailand, their remittances contributed 7% of the GDP of Laos. Migrant workers contributed remittances3 mainly to their families.

Chanh, a father of a migrant worker from Savannakhet said: “My two sons went to work in Thailand and their cash helped to make repairs to our house. My two sons went there to work for more than 7 years. Many young people always think of moving to work in Thailand, as they can find jobs and money. But I never know where or how they lived, and whether they faced many difficulties. I always miss them. It is always a happy time whenever they visit home.”

Finding income and skills across the border

Migrant workers stayed in Thailand from a month to about twelve months, receiving a wage of 2,000-3,000 Baht. They often could save about 1,000-2,000 Baht, and sent home about 2,000-6,000 Baht.

People interviewed for this article mentioned that they received 4,000-6,500 Baht, and their savings was 2,000-8,000 Baht after they had stayed for 1-2 years. For those workers who stayed about 3-5 years, they had 6,000-9,000 Baht, and saved 2,000-15,000 Baht. Both groups of long and short-term stay sent home remittances of 1,000-4,500 Baht. But they did not send the money to their families every month but mostly just once every 2 months.

A significant aspect of their migration to Thailand was their improved skills and working experience. They gained work discipline including a system of rules of conducts or method of practice. Many workers got more skilled with machine production. The workers also gained information from other workers about their workplace, and the process of working in various factories. They gained a “network” in terms of knowing other persons who could help them find work or better paying opportunities in the future. About 10% of workers had personal motivation and developed their plans for the future after returning to their hometown. However, 16%4 said that they did not improve their skills. Although they may be regarded as human capital, it remains debatable how much they have gained in terms of “skills” in terms of other work-related aspects such as health, management, knowledge, and education.

The Lao National Development report of 2009 states that “Migrant workers got the skills in Thailand, but Lao labour market missed the opportunities to use them”. One study5 illustrated that Lao migrant workers from Savannakhet province, who worked in Thailand, had an initial situation of unskilled labourers. About 66% had finished primary school, while secondary school was 35% and upper secondary school 5%, while no school attendance and lower primary school had highly 34% include non-attendance in school of 19% and in lower primary school of 15%.

Interview to a man who returned from working in Thailand at his old house in Savannakhet province, and his new is the cement one near the old one in the picture that his new one is from his income in working in Thailand. (Photo by Somphone Soukhathammavong.)

Migrant workers’ cash remittances help support their families: This migrant worker who came back from Thailand used his income to build a new cement house (far left) in Savannakhet province. (Photo by Somphone Soukhathammavong.)

When workers returned from Thailand back to their hometown, they got work due to their previous job training and their newly-learned work discipline. The study reported that Lao migrant workers were valuable human capital for the country if they could use their skills to find new jobs in their hometowns or other provinces of Laos. However, many workers could not fully participate in the Lao labour market because they cannot access the recruitment information on employment opportunities of Laos. The obstacles to access to information involves their limited access to Lao media (TV and newspaper).

“The Lao government should address this issue of returning workers, and increase jobs and wages to encourage local workers to work in their community areas” said Lora, a local officer.

Dangers in transborder migration for work

The biggest danger faced by labour migration is the many cases of human trafficking.6 A report on trafficking said that Lao women and young girls were trafficked into Thailand, Malaysia and China for sex trade, factories, agriculture, fishing industry and domestic work.7 During 2001 to 2011, the number of victims of human trafficking was more than 1,500, with more female victims than male. The report added that the victims under 18 years old mostly came from Champasak, Saravan and Savannakhet provinces, and Vientiane.8

One of the key issues with migration especially illegal or undocumented is the health impacts. The Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women has stated that health issue of migrants were both physical and mental problems as well as communicable and non-communicable diseases. Another issue was that the occupational safe health practices for migrant workers and workplace safety was usually low, and migrants lacked access to health care. The data9 from Migrant and Impacts on Health, Women and Children showed that Lao migrants were mostly in the illegal group and faced more risks in living, eating and drinking during their migration period, and often contracted HIV/AIDS infection. In fact, male migrant workers from Laos between the age of 15 to 4910 years were a major cause of transmitting HIV/AIDS in Laos.

Making it safer for migrant workers

The GOL is developing a national training manual on human trafficking to strengthen the capacity of front-line officers to undertake counter-trafficking activities. They have supported the UN agencies and INGOs to start building capacity in labour migration and protection.

According to the model agreement of 2015 between Thailand and neighbouring countries, focusing on education and vocational training is also important especially special training for migrants to raise their awareness and prevent them from becoming victims of human trafficking. Migrant workers and their families can benefit from cash and skills but also face the negative impacts of work place dangers, human trafficking and workplace safety and health issues.


Show 10 footnotes

  1. Numbers are from study on 100 respondents of the study title “Occupational Prospects of Lao Industrial Workers Who Returned from Thailand to Lao PDR: A Case Study of Savannakhet Province”. Master’s Thesis, Southeast Asian Studies, Graduate School, Chulalongkorn University.
  2. Huget, J.W,.Aphichat Chamratrithirong., and Richter, K. 2011. Thailand Migration Profile. Thailand Migration  Report 2011 Migration for Development in Thailand: Overview and Tools for Policymakers. J. W. H. A. Chamratrithirong. IOM, Thailand Bangkok, IOM: 7-15.
  3. 1 Thai Baht equals about 250 Laotian Kip
  4. 16% of 100 Lao migrant workers
  5. “Occupational Prospects of Lao Industrial Workers Who Returned from Thailand to Lao PDR: A Case Study of Savannakhet Province”. Master’s Thesis, Southeast Asian Studies, Graduate School, Chulalongkorn University.
  6. Will, Christina. 2001. Thailand –Lao People’s Democratic Republic and Thailand – Myanmar Border Areas, Trafficking in Children into the Worst Forms of Children Labour: A Rapid Assessment:3.
  7. US State Department, Trafficking in Persons Report 2012 – Lao. 2012. P. 216. Available from: www .state. gov /j/tip/rls/tiprpt/2012/
  8. US State Department, Trafficking in Persons Report 2012. P. 217.
  9. 16 November, 2007
  10. International Women’s Rights Action Watch Asia Pacific (IWRAW Asia Pacific). 2009. Alternative Report